Bill Ford says he's no short-time CEO
By Mary Connelly
Automotive News / November 11, 2002
DETROIT -- If you think Bill Ford is only an interim CEO, think again.
The man whose name is on the building in Dearborn, Mich., says he is sticking around to run the company founded by his great-grandfather.
"I will be here as long as anybody wants me here," Bill Ford, 45, said in an interview last week. "I love this place and I am not looking to hand this off."
A year into the CEO job, he is stamping the automaker with his own informal style, laid-back confidence and long-term view.
The changes are tangible in ways large and small - from the acoustic guitar propped up near the sofa in his office to his hands-on dissection of the Lincoln Mercury business plan and his recent dollar-by-dollar decisions that will slash another $1 billion in nonproduct costs (see story, Page 37).
It's too soon to tell whether the force of Bill Ford's personality will be enough to lift the company off its knees. Ford Motor Co. is staggering through a maze of vehicle quality problems and cost woes as it tries to generate $7 billion in annual pre-tax profit by 2005.
But if he fails, it won't be for lack of effort. In the last month, he has:
Waltzed Wall Street trying to nudge up the company's stock price.
Spoken to investor groups to shore up faith in his turnaround strategy.
Undertaken a detailed, operation-by-operation review of Ford of Europe.
Mandated that $1 billion in nonproduct cost cutting be accelerated, personally pinpointing every dollar.
Ordered his lieutenants at the Premier Automotive Group, Ford Motor's luxury side of the house, to return by year end with a revised schedule for product launches to avoid the kind of embarrassment and $500 million loss at Jaguar that the company suffered this year, in part because of the tardy introduction of the Jaguar XJ.
Along the way, Bill Ford has not lost his ability to sound upbeat about the company's prospects - but Wall Street hasn't lost its skepticism, either. Standard & Poor's Rating Services cut the company's long-term credit rating to a level two notches above junk-bond status.
Quality problems continue to haunt the company. Last week, it issued two more recalls of the beleaguered Ford Focus, and federal investigators have intensified other defect investigations involving the car (See story, Page 16), leading The New York Times to opine that "the Ford Focus might be the most error-prone car in the industry."
And Ford Motor sales toppled 31 percent in October, a steeper plunge than the industry's overall 24.5 percent drop from October 2001.
When he's not on the road, Bill Ford works out of a corner office on the top floor of the Ford world headquarters building in Dearborn, nicknamed the Glass House. His large windows give the CEO a commanding view of the historic Rouge complex, and to the east, downtown Detroit, which is home to the Detroit Lions football team owned by his father, William Clay Ford.
The office carpeting is a rich blue, much like Ford Blue, and you can see Bill Ford's interests reflected in the room. In a corner, there is an aquarium stocked with tropical fish. There are numerous plants - even his computer's screensaver flashes photos of lush vegetation. An acoustic guitar stands propped next to a small sofa.
Despite the relaxed environment, Bill Ford has traveled a long way from the days when his name evoked the image of a corporate idealist and determined environmentalist.
Now he talks of winding up grueling meetings with investors and heading to the office in the evening to comb through lists of possible cost cuts compiled by operating executives. Mondays are devoted to regularly scheduled tasks such as operating committee meetings and reviewing the status of the company's European operations. And he speaks of calling on Nick Scheele, Ford president and CFO Allan Gilmour to help him end the company's parochial, geographic product planning. He wants all products in the company's global arsenal to be available worldwide, as needed.
No 'reluctant CEO'
He is not, Bill Ford says, the so-called "reluctant CEO" that some would make him out to be.
"I was only reluctant in that I never was looking for it to happen, and certainly, not the way it happened," he said. "But once I was here, I was committed and I never looked back. This isn't something I look at as a part-time job. Or something I looked at as I am going to just do until I can get out of here as fast as I possibly can.
"I love this company. I will do whatever I can to help it."
In the last year he even agreed to appear in a series of TV ads, overcoming concerns about his family's privacy and safety in the belief that his personal message would help restore consumer trust in the company.
In contrast, a year ago Bill Ford sounded as if he was still trying to become accustomed to his role as a top-level executive.
In an interview Dec. 3, 2001, just five weeks after being named CEO, he said, "I can see a day perhaps when I was chairman again and not being CEO." He was taking his place at the front of the fray, he said, for the sake of his children and grandchildren.
And he spoke in words immediately familiar to millions of working parents when he said, "My four children are still at home, and there is nothing that I enjoy more than being with them, going to their games, hanging out with them and helping with homework. Obviously, this job will cut into that. But one doesn't have the luxury of timing."
Now, like other working parents, Bill Ford brings reminders of his kids into his work life. Last week, he jumped up during the interview to take from his desk two drawings - one of Dracula, one of Detroit Lions quarterback Joey Harrington - penciled on spiral-notebook paper by one young son. A second time he jumped up to retrieve from his desktop a plastic pencil holder decorated by one of his daughters more than a decade ago.
Those who work with Bill Ford are learning his style and how he likes to get things done. He is a man with an easygoing manner and a knack for disarming camaraderie, despite the social and economic gulf that separates him from a good part of humanity.
He is informal, say those who work for him. He avoids the kind of calendar inked in detail months or even years in advance that restricts so many CEOs. He enforces a "six-week rule," meaning that he allows little to be penned on his calendar more than six weeks out.
If you ask whether he'll still be on the job at age 65, he responds with an easy laugh. "There are days I am not sure I am going to make it until the next morning."
"It is hard to look that far down the road," he says, becoming serious again. "Part of it is just my personality. I have never wanted to plan my life out that far in advance. I have always taken this place a year at a time. I've always taken my life that way. I have never been one to plan out the next 20 years. Because nothing ever turns out the way you plan anyway."
Then he hastens to add, "But having said that, I can't imagine doing anything else at this point. I am committed to the success of this company."
Since 1979, Bill Ford has worked in a succession of jobs in manufacturing, sales, marketing, product development and finance. He became chairman Jan. 1, 1999.
As a CEO, Bill Ford suggests that in areas such as product design he peppers the "experts" with questions but admits that the professionals know best how to get a job done.
Some of his questions already have changed company strategy. Lincoln Mercury's product plan was beefed up earlier this year when the brands were carved out of the Premier Automotive Group and grafted back into North American product development.
"I did not think they had a robust enough product plan and business plan,'' Bill Ford said.
In June, he turned up the heat on the company's vehicle-by-vehicle cost cutting, ordering more time from engineers and executives in the effort.
As the automaker moves toward its centennial on June 16, 2003, Bill Ford will become more visible outside the company. Violating his own six-week rule, he has agreed to speak at the Automotive News World Congress in January and the National Automobile Dealers Association convention in February.
But wearing a CEO badge and walking through life with the trappings of that title do not seem to impress a man born to the Ford name, a vaunted industrial legacy and an historic birthright.
"A lot of what CEOs do is kind of extraneous in terms of a lot of the outside stuff,'' Bill Ford said. "A lot of it is to make themselves look important and feel important."
"I always ask myself, 'How is this going to help Ford Motor Co. if I go to this event or skip this event? Is this a stroke-my-ego kind of thing?' " he said. "I am not interested in that.
"I was fortunate to grow up around wealth and power and realized how illusory it mostly is. That doesn't really hold any appeal for me. What does is to get this company back on track and really get us back to greatness."
How three Ford Motor executives view CEO Bill Ford's collaborative working style
Dave Szczupak, vice president of powertrain operations
"He knows if he trusts the people around him, he's got to let them get on and do it, while at the same time giving some guidance and coaching. I think the whole idea of how we are trying to run the business is what we call the inverted triangle. No longer is it a hierarchical mind-set, where the boss tells you to do something from the very top."
Chris Theodore, vice president of North American product development
"He's challenging, but he's asking for your opinion, and he wants your open feedback. The meetings I've had with him go anywhere from deciding to do the Ford GT, which was a great decision for all of us, to what's our plan for Lincoln Mercury, laying it all out for him - having him ask the questions and getting his support."
J Mays, vice president of design
"I take Bill through the studio about 4 times a year. I see him and talk about cars more than that. But he's got other worries. I've got a whole list of characters that are interested in seeing what's going on in product predevelopment before I get to Bill. Bill and I have had a great relationship from the very start when I came here five years ago. He's left me alone to get on with my work."
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....